I don’t remember how old I was the first time I read Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait Till Helen Comes. Eight or nine years old, I guess. My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Kearney, recommended it to me and when I finished it that first time through I went back for more Mary Downing Hahn. The Jellyfish Season, Tallahassee Higgins, The Time of the Witch, Stepping on the Cracks, and especially The Spanish Kidnapping Disaster and Following the Mystery Man all became regular companions, both the paperbacks from the carousel in the school library and the hardcovers from the public library, second row, bottom shelf.
But I loved none quite so much as Wait Till Helen Comes, that perennial favorite ghost story still in print nearly 30 years after it was first published. By the time I finished elementary school and moved from Mary Downing Hahn to Mary Higgins Clark, I’d read it 16 times—enough to have the entire first chapter memorized. Twenty years later, I finished my Master of Liberal Arts, a degree I completed while working full-time as an editor. After four years of analyzing or editing everything I read, I walked to my public library to get something I could read and simply enjoy. I immediately went to the H’s in the children’s section, a little sad to find that my old friends had new cover art, but nonetheless happy to be reunited with them. Reading Wait Till Helen Comes for the seventeenth time, I had the strangest sense of being able to anticipate exact phrases before I got to them, as if the words were so deeply ingrained in my mind that they were still in there somewhere, just waiting to be unlocked.
I don’t know precisely what it was about Mary Downing Hahn’s books and Helen in particular that cast such a spell on me, but they were always my go-tos when I was upset or lonely or anxious, or even when everything was fine and I just wanted a good story that I knew so well I could wrap it around me and snuggle in, like a favorite quilt. When classmates turned to me—the known class bookworm—for recommendations on library day, I invariably invoked Mary Downing Hahn’s name. When I imagined becoming a writer, I thought about her, and how sophisticated and fabulous she must be. I dearly wanted to meet her.
When the opportunity arose a couple of weeks ago to interview her in her Columbia, Maryland home, I was just as excited as I would have been at 10 years old. Almost immediately, I realized I would need to take a copy of Wait Till Helen Comes for her to sign.
But I never had my own copy. It never even occurred to me to ask my parents to buy me one. It was always there for me at my school’s library and if it happened to be checked out I could always get the hardcover at the public library, just three blocks from my house.
Obviously, I could just go and buy myself a new copy to take to the interview, but memory is a funny thing and books—not just the words within them, but the specific combination of tree pulp and glue we’ve held in our hands—are sacred objects, and I wanted my copy, the one my small, eager hands had thumbed so many times, not a pristine version off the bookstore shelf with no yellowing pages, no cracked spine.
Mrs. Kearney has long since retired, so I looked up my old school’s new librarian, Holly McMorrow, and sent her an email that started with, “Let me just acknowledge up front how crazy this is,” and ended with the lunatic, desperate request for a particular copy of a paperback book that first went into circulation 25 years ago.
The following afternoon, I received an email: “I FOUND IT!!!!!!!!” I couldn’t believe it, still can’t believe it. After a flurry of excited emails, we arranged for my mother to pick up the book that evening. When she sent me a picture that night, I gasped, then squealed. “That’s the one!!” I texted back. How was it possible that this book had survived so many years and so many students?
A few days later, my mom came to visit, and Helen and I were re-united. As with all great friends, seeing her again feels as if we were never apart. I got so used to seeing this cover during my late elementary years, that there is nothing even the slightest bit surprising about seeing it around the house now. If there is a way to tap into and re-experience all the best parts of childhood, to transport ourselves—however fleetingly—to the freedom of being 10 years old again, this is it.
Meeting Mary Downing Hahn was, genuinely, a childhood dream come true. We talked of books, childhood, and favorite authors, cats, kids, and our shared experience of surviving pregnancy in Baltimore’s summer heat and humidity. She told me about her experience as a writer and especially about how she came to write Wait Till Helen Comes. We spent two hours together but were it not for the photos and the signed books I brought home, I might think I dreamed the whole thing. Even now, the memory of meeting her has an otherworldly feeling to it, an experience a character in a book might have, not something that happens to real people in real life.
When, towards the end of our interview, I told her of my quest to get “my” copy from the library, Hahn—herself a former librarian—seemed to delight in the story and before I left she inscribed it: “For Erin—I’m so glad you found ‘your’ copy of ‘Helen’!! Happy Re-reading!”
What started as a cheap paperback—the printed price in the corner reads $2.75—has become one of my most treasured possessions. This book—this book—came to be on my shelf because of the efforts of three librarians, one a writer. If books are sacred objects, libraries are cathedrals, and librarians are spiritual guides. I am very fortunate and deeply grateful to have had so many libraries and librarians who have led me to the tomes that have so enriched my life and which link me in the richest way to the girl I used to be.
With deepest thanks to Caroline Kearney, Holly McMorrow, and Mary Downing Hahn.
Read my interview with Mary Downing Hahn here.